Bare Facts and Naked Truths

May 8, 2010

I found George Englebersten’s book Bare Facts and Naked Truths in a used book shop and was attracted to it because of the interesting (if often wrongheaded) quotations it contained. My favorites are:

Most writers regard the truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use. –Mark Twain

This kind of thing is frightening to me because it gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world … I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously colored what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘the facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable. -Orwell

We’ve reached a point where, in an orgy of political correctness, everything is true, and nothing is permitted. -Dean Kuipers

Truths are illusions. -Nietzsche

A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t. -Roger Scruton

It is a great advantage for a system of philosophy to be substantially true. -Santayana

He wasn’t exactly hostile to the facts but he he was apathetic about them. -Wolcott Gibbs

Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense. -Mark Twain

Scientists tend to take for granted a robust view of truth and are impatient of philosophical equivocation over its reality or importance. It’s hard enough coaxing nature to give up her truths, without spectators and hangers-on strewing gratuitous obstacles in our way. -R. Dawkins

A philosophical argument is trying to get someone to believe something whether he wants to or not. -R. Nozick

Many books require no thought from those who read them, and for a very simple reason; — they made no such demand upon those who wrote them. -C. C. Colton

The covers of this book are too far apart. -Bierce

Having bought the book, I found that I could not understand most of it. Englebretsen engages in a futile attempt to present a correspondence theory of truth. It seems that he believes that development of complex technical arguments could somehow compensate for the fundamental problems with the correspondence approach.

Apart from the quotes, the interesting part of the book is Englebretsen’s explanation that his objective in creating his theory of truth is to promote “an understanding and respect for the methods of science and reasoning”. According to him, this is necessary due to the fact that “[t]he final years of the last century were blighted, at least in the cultural and intellectual life of the industrialized West, by a hodgepodge of the intellectually viral memes known collectively now as “postmodernism”. These viruses of the mind have then infected people far and wide, resulting in “a diminishing rather than an augmentation of our fund of knowledge and understanding.”

This attitude lays bare an important aspect in the philosophy of epistemology: an important part of the motivation for the activity is not merely to understand what truth and knowledge are but to demonstrate the superiority of the truth as conceived by one person or group over those as conceived by others. A correspondence theory of truth allows a speaker to claim that their ideas are “real”, i.e., true in some absolute sense. Accepting a coherence theory, on the other hand, would force any speaker to concede that any idea is at best true with respect to a certain body of ideas, so that another person may always cling to a different view by rejecting that body entirely and by doing so remain beyond the reach of the truth claims of the speaker.

In other words, it is likely that beyond the naive intuitive appeal of a correspondence theory, the reason people – and especially scientists, perhaps – insist on the validity of a correspondence theory of truth is because such a theory appeals to their self-assurance, self-importance and vanity. This is nowhere so apparent as in the Dawkins quote above.

Of course, self-assurance, self-importance and vanity are antithetical to scientific (or philosophical) thinking. It is therefore agent O’brien who, in the 1984 passage Engelbresten quotes,

You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in it’s own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the party, which is collective and immortal,

promotes critical (scientific, philosophical) thought by denying that reality is self-evident and reminding Smith that people make mistakes. In the same passage O’brien suppresses critical thought by insisting that powerful institutions do not – but this is hardly different from Dawkins’s position when he complains that “spectators and hangers-on” are “strewing gratuitous obstacles in our [scientists’] way” to truth.

Therefore, a correspondence theory of the truth is the one promoted in our society – by its authoritarian establishment and institutions. This theory with its claim to a unique, self-evident “real” truth is the one most convenient to the powerful, since that “reality” is by default the world-view that is promoted and that sustains the powerful.

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